On this morning of a great sports reckoning in Toronto, this city is more than ever ruled by the bold.
When it comes to sports the bar remains the one set by Masai Ujiri. The president of the Toronto Raptors and his front office traded away a beloved player who was a close friend of the most important player in franchise history, fired a popular head coach and went all in on a guy who was likely going to leave at the end of the season coming off a year in which he didn’t play. It was done in a manner that won a championship and still left the team positioned to hold down second place in its conference with another 50-win season.
You go ahead and try that. I dare you.
And so here we are with the Toronto Maple Leafs needing to pull off a similarly bold move. Auston Matthews is the only one of their core players who can take any sense of accomplishment out of the loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He should be here for as long as he wants. John Tavares? No choice: the no-trade deal and that ‘C’ locks him here in perpetuity, as much as that contract now looks like overkill.
Beyond those two, there isn’t a player on the Leafs that should be untouchable. That doesn’t mean ‘trade them all.’ But it does mean listen to any offers. Yeah, there’s a pandemic here and everything’s out of whack and all that but, seriously: what makes you think the Blue Jackets wouldn’t have done this to this outfit in June?
It’s true that it’s tough to compare sports, what with their different contract structures and free agent rules and administrative quirks. Plus, luck helps. Landing Kawhi Leonard was a once in a lifetime, shot for the stars that worked out perfectly. But there was a whiff of providence to it all – Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant going down in the playoffs was a big boost, and don’t think for a second it didn’t help that LeBron James picked that season to go to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Yet the bottom line is Ujiri determined it was time to stop hitting the same old bump in the road. In my lifetime covering sports, it was the second “damn the torpedoes” trade I’ve had to talk or report about in detail. The first was David Dombrowski’s decision to trade Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and a reliever named Gene Harris to the Seattle Mariners for Mark Langston. Dombrowski knew that Charles Bronfman was going to sell the Montreal Expos and knew that in the future he likely wouldn’t have a committed, deep-pocketed owner to back him. You know the rest; the Expos didn’t win, Langston left, and the enduring memory of it all was Bryn Smith telling reporters that the trade “put too much pressure” on the team to win.
Are there lessons here for the Toronto Blue Jays, who on Tuesday will play their ersatz home opener of this ersatz season at their ersatz home field in Buffalo? Not yet. For one thing, it’s going to be difficult to judge the progress made by young players in this shortened season or, for that matter, by teams playing 60 games instead of 162 and with an expanded playoff format.
I’d argue the task faced by general manager Ross Atkins and president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro is far and away the most difficult in this city and the one that demands the most patience, because there is little doubt the pandemic will wreak havoc on the game’s economics and there is equally little doubt that negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement are going to be brutally tough. The current CBA expires after next season and only a fool would suggest at this time that it will be settled without some type of labor stoppage.
What do we make of the 2020 Blue Jays so far? They’ve pitched better than anticipated, and their defence, until this weekend, was shockingly good considering the expected mediocrity of their outfield and the growing pains expected with Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., at first base. The lineup as a whole has not performed well enough … but, again, it’s a 13-game snippet in a weird, out-of-sync season that in its early stages has seen offences throughout the game sputter.
I know the optimists believe the Blue Jays could be 8-5 instead of 5-8 but that’s not how it works; at key points in games they have simply not executed offensively and have made poor relief pitches at inopportune times. They have, in other words, not been good enough at important junctures.
The free agent market for hitters is not inspiring, especially if like me you believe the key to it all is landing a left-hand hitting outfielder with some thump who could add some power in the middle of the order. The Blue Jays don’t need another 50/50 designated hitter/position player, they have enough of those. So unless the likes of Michael Brantley or 37-year-old Yuli Gurriel or maybe Marcell Ozuna float your boat, that means hoping for improvement within from Guerrero Jr., and maybe Teoscar Hernandez.
Even if Austin Martin plays centre field, it could mean trading for a young outfielder with only a few years service time and hoping that horse-trading around the new CBA doesn’t bring free agency for the likes of Bo Bichette and Vladdy a year or two closer, effectively slicing one or two years off of the window of opportunity. The biggest move this front office has made so far has been signing Hyun Jin Ryu to a free agent deal and that’s a good sign. But the boldest move is still to come.
• Speaking of Dombrowski and that Langston deal, one of the fallouts of Bronfman’s decision to sell the Expos to a group fronted by Claude Brochu was that it led predictably to rumours that the team would relocate and one of the first places out of the gate was Buffalo, whose triple-A franchise was owned by the Rich family and had a ballpark that could, the theory went, be built up to major league standards. And now, here we are. Sahlen Field here we come; Buffalo gets its hands on a Canadian MLB franchise.
• Jordan Romano is among the things that have really gone right for the Blue Jays. The Markham, Ont., right-hander’s seven innings without a hit are the most to start a season by a Blue Jays pitcher since another reliever, Tom Henke, started out the 1985 season with eight hitless innings. Henke didn’t allow a hit until facing his 27th batter in ’85.
• At the core of commissioner Rob Manfred’s shot at MLB players last weekend was a reaffirmation of the idea that teams needed to exercise more internal discipline in order to give the game’s COVID-19 protocols a chance. That means club-mandated precautions as much as league-mandated measures, which is why the Indians’ decision to send pitcher Zach Plesac home after a night out on the town in Chicago is a welcomed step.
• There’s been so much to digest during the first three weeks of pandemic baseball – you know, basics such as finding enough players to put on the field – that it’s only now folks are starting to poke through the trends of the first three weeks of a season that started after the usual all-star break, a season where the dog days and early days are one and the same.
This week, the focus shifted to a lack of offence, most notably in an enterprising piece by the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier, who detailed J.D. Martinez’s lament about MLB’s more stringent guidelines on the use of in-game video resulting from the Astros and Red Sox’s sign-stealing scandals. Speier is a helluva reporter and from a distance it would make sense as a contributing factor, along with the interruption of rhythms. It was interesting hearing Blue Jays pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu mention on Sunday that he has experienced some wrinkles in pre-game preparation brought on by social distancing and some other medical protocols put in place. Interesting.
• Erik Kratz has had quite a career: at 40 years, 56 days of age he has played for nine teams over 11 seasons – including the Blue Jays – and has been invited back for a second time by the Phillies and now the Yankees. Kratz had a double Saturday for the Yankees when he became the second-oldest player to start for the team behind the plate since Deacon McGuire’s start for the Yankees on Oct. 5, 2006, at the age of 42 years, 321 days.
• The Padres’ Dinelson Lamet struck out 11 Sunday over 6 2/3 innings, allowing his only run on a homer by Kole Calhoun. Lamet went into the game as one of only nine pitchers to have logged 15 innings without allowing a homer. After Sunday there are six, with Frankie Montas of the A’s setting the pace, keeping the ball in the yard through 23 innings.
• The A’s have a 5 1/2-game lead over the Astros after sweeping the defending American League champions this weekend, the first time they’ve led their division by that many games since June 29, 2014. The last time they led their division by as many games after 16 games or fewer was 1981, when they rolled out to a 14-1 start.
Early days and all that, but as Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. battles to find his sea legs, or at least battles to start putting balls in the air instead of beating them into the ground, it’s hard not to be a little envious of what Fernando Tatis Jr. is doing with the Padres. Just 74 days older than Vlad, he has homered in four consecutive games, making him the second-youngest player to do so in the modern era.
In the modern era, only Ronald Acuna Jr. has hit a homer in five straight games at an earlier age (he was 20 in 2018). Tatis Jr. has become the talk of the sport and with eight homers is bidding to become the first player to lead the majors in long balls in their age-21 season since Eddie Matthews (who hit 47 homers for the 195 Milwaukee Braves) and just the third player in the modern era to do so, joining Sam Crawford, who hit 16 homers for the 1901 Cincinnati Reds.
In his first 100 MLB games, Tatis Jr. has 127 hits, tied with Edgar Renteria for fifth all-time behind Joe DiMaggio (153), Lloyd Waner (137), Hal Trosky (132) and Richie Ashburn and Orlando Cepeda, who had 128 hits each. This, of course, means we will soon have a debate as to whether he is the “face” of baseball, which is all fine and well except you’d think by now folks would have given up on that argument. There is no “face” of baseball, because the game is consumed largely on a regional basis and few baseball players register in the area of merchandise sales or popular culture that play a major role in determining that position – whatever it is.
I mean, Mike Trout is the best player of his time, yet he isn’t the “face” of the game either. Aaron Judge is likely the closest to meeting the definition, by virtue of his game and playing for a fabled franchise. But, truthfully, I’m not sure there has been a “face” of baseball since Ken Griffey Jr.
Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET and Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p.m, ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. He also co-hosts A Kick In The Grass, Canada’s only national soccer show, on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.